Posts Tagged ‘Bernard Lewis’

Fowl language: Thanksgiving, Deadly Viper, and how we got the word “turkey”

turkey3New posts have been noticeably absent here on semaphoric, and it has been some six months since I last updated the blog. What better time for a new entry than this Thanksgiving season. At the risk of disappointing my readers, I will not gush about the things I’m thankful for (even though there is an abundance to be thankful for). Rather, this entry is about origins. This is also about the recent Deadly Viper controversy. Although this controversy has been in the making for weeks, the situation still requires continuing reflection and critique.

Origins is about beginnings. Yet this is not about how we arrived at a certain physical reality. This is about how certain physical reality came to define a linguistic reality and how the interplay between the two strengthens the reality we perceive. In particular, this has to do with what and how we perceive what’s foreign and exotic and how we use words to caricaturize what seems different and strange to us. And this has to with the bird we eat on Thanksgiving, the turkey.

Coincidentally, the bird shares the same name as the country Turkey. Was the bird named after the country or the country after the bird? The answer to this chicken-or-egg question is difficult to ascertain. The word “Turkey” itself probably originated from an ancient Chinese word naming the people living in southern Central Asia. The geo-political entity of Turkey was never known as “Turkey” since demarcation of this country’s boundaries did not occur until the end of WWI. From the 13th century until the First World War, Turkey was simply known as Osman or the Ottoman Empire. However, the modern name for Turkey comes from the Medieval Latin turchia, and by the mid-1200’s, the word turki had appeared in the Old English lexicon to describe people who are part of the Turkic family group.
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